The Rev. Doug Pagitt jumped on stage at his former Minneapolis church with a message that he and his entourage are repeating across the country: Evangelical voters, you can stay true to your Christian faith but not vote for President Donald Trump.
Their Vote Common Good campaign, conducted from a bright orange bus making stops at every Democratic state primary, represents the small cracks in the evangelical base that helped propel Trump into office. More than 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016 and continue to support him in his bid for re-election.
Pagitt’s campaign hopes to convince wavering evangelicals that the president’s character and actions are so out of sync with Jesus’ teachings that it’s a moral imperative to remove him from office.
“I’m a Christian pastor … and I believe everyone is a child of God, is the light of the world,” Pagitt told his audience earlier this month. “But not every light of the world should be president of the United States of America.”
Carl Nelson, president of Minnesota’s association of evangelical churches, Transform Minnesota, acknowledged that “I’ve heard very few evangelicals who embrace the president’s character.” But they overwhelmingly view Trump as an ally.
“Those who support him feel the other [candidate] choices would weaken religious freedoms, would expand access to abortion, and are making no effort to embrace the faith community,” said Nelson.
The Vote Common Good movement hopes to change that. It brings together progressive Christian pastors and other faith leaders from across the country to hold rallies, roundtables and candidate training on how to connect with religious voters.
The campaign, launched during the Iowa caucuses, offers visible support to the faithful grappling with this tough choice. It is sometimes joined by supporters ranging from former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, now a professor of public theology, to Catholic social justice activist Sister Simone Campbell.
“We’re not trying to make everyone a Democrat, just to vote for one this time,” said Pagitt, the group’s executive director.
Pagitt is heartened by recent developments in the evangelical community. In December, the editor of Christianity Today, a magazine started by the Rev. Billy Graham, penned an editorial headlined “Trump Should Be Removed From Office.” A few weeks later, before the impeachment hearings, a poll by Politico/Morning Consult indicated that 34% of evangelicals “strongly approved” of Trump’s removal.
The Lincoln Project, a new super PAC founded by prominent anti-Trump conservatives such as George Conway, last month took out its first advertisement. It was titled “The MAGA Church” and warns evangelicals to “beware of false prophets” who “inwardly are ravening wolves.”
Pagitt hopes that even a modest embrace of his message can tilt the election scales.
“Our goal is not to reach the most hardened evangelicals or Catholics but to reach the 5 to 15 percent who are uncomfortable with the Trump administration and are looking for an exit ramp,” Pagitt said.
On the road
Pagitt, a high-energy campaigner known for his trademark fedora, is an unlikely figure to oversee such a campaign. He was a pastor for 11 years at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, an evangelical community that is one of the largest in Minnesota. He launched Solomon’s Porch, a nontraditional, nondenominational church in Minneapolis in 2000. He resigned in January to lead this campaign.
The campaign’s orange bus — with “Faith Hope Love” written on the side — can be seen at small-town diners, bars, college campuses and outdoor events for Democratic candidates. Pagitt calls the mobile ministry “part rally, part hootenanny, part fundraiser.”
This month, the bus stopped at Solomon’s Porch, where about 150 people had gathered. Most had learned about the event on social media, where Vote Common Good is actively engaged.
Tami Hodgkins of Minneapolis was seated at a table. She considers herself an evangelical Christian, and she attends a nondenominational suburban church. Her motivation for coming: to learn ideas for talking to family and friends about reconsidering their votes.
“I was told that if you’re a person of faith, it means you’re Republican,” Hodgkins said. “But I don’t believe that anymore. My faith perspective is that the world is broken and in need of restoration. I see this as a path to restoration.”
The upbeat rally started with a welcome by Pagitt, followed by inspirational speakers and musicians. The Rev. Daniel Deitrich, a pastor from South Bend, Ind., took the stage to sing a ballad he penned called “Hymn for the 81%,” referring to white evangelical Trump supporters. The song, which he posted on YouTube on Jan. 12, has racked up 606,000 views.
The tone of the rally was less about bashing Trump and more about rousing the conscience of his Christian supporters. Pagitt frequently tells audiences that evangelicals can “stack the courts” but “lose your very soul.” Some Christians are “all about the Second Amendment,” he says, but overlook the Second Commandment, which is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Janiece Gray, an evangelical Christian from Edina, lingered as the event wound down. Gray, 44, said she was energized to “see there were a lot of other people who felt this way.”
“It felt refreshing to hear things that I believe in,” Gray said. “I liked the tone, that God loves everyone. We need to come at this a different way.”
Yet most white evangelical voters are unlikely to be swayed by this message and its messengers, said some religion scholars. Their burning priority is abortion restrictions, but all leading Democratic candidates support abortion rights, noted Thomas Kidd, a Baylor University religion historian and author of the 2019 book “Who is an Evangelical?”
“But for younger voters and people of color, it can give people a plausible argument on why it would be OK not to vote for Donald Trump,” he said.
Just 12% of black Protestants, who are largely evangelical, supported the president in a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center.
The president launched his own campaign, Evangelicals for Trump, at a Miami megachurch last month, telling those in attendance, “God is on our side.” The estimated 7,000 people who packed the place illustrate the tough odds facing the Vote Common Good campaign.
But Pagitt remains hopeful: “It’s just the beginning. We’ve got a lot of states to go.”